One of the most directly affected departments in higher education, IT teams, have played a huge role in the shift to remote learning. Already busy teams, have had to work with students, staff, and departments across campus to make sure that learning and working from home wasn’t just possible – but effective and enjoyable. In Facing Today’s New Norm in Higher Ed: Perspectives from the Technology Office, we spoke to three IT leaders to discover how they adapted to meet challenges caused by COVID-19. You can view the full webinar at any time, but here’s a few highlights of the conversation.
- Carolee Cohen, information technology manager, University of Minnesota
- Chris Foster, director of student financial services, University of North Texas
- Mark McCulloch, director of information systems and business affairs, University of Oregon
Preparing for COVID-19
Though COVID-19 was an issue that appeared quickly for higher ed institutions, many IT departments were ready to adapt quickly. Though moving to remote learning would be a challenge, it’s one they felt confident taking on.
Carolee: I would say that we were fairly prepared, from an IT perspective, and some of that has to do with the fact that in the last five years we took on a large project that brought our network out of the last century — and the majority of the work had been completed. So we had already established the infrastructure to deal with many more users using many more resources and felt somewhat prepared once we all got the command to go remote with online learning.
We also had VPN requirements for many of our systems. In the early weeks we had a technical staff monitoring the VPN usage and had people to help users understand which VPN network to use. We also instituted a 12-hour timeout, because people like me would come home on the weekend, sign into VPN to do some work on Friday night, and leave it up until work on Monday. Now we have a 12-hour timeout to limit the bandwidth usage, so that was a good thing.
Additionally, we transitioned from Moodle to Canvas a couple of years ago had moved from WebEx to Zoom a while back as well. Our technical area did monitoring of the usage in performance and had to introduce the security message measures as the “Zoom bombings” started in. We have also been a Google Campus for many years, so most or our institution was already familiar with those collaboration tools.
About three years ago, our department started buying laptops instead of desktops…and we did have some team members working from home once a week already, so we were prepared to do that and had the equipment to do so during the pandemic.
Chris: You know, I think it was it was interesting how we had a really good array of projects that just somehow stacked into the deck prior to COVID-19 that helped make us prepared for the transition to remote learning. Similar to Carolee we also were prepared for VPN and Zoom usage and we had prepared people for using remote desktop and working remotely.
Fortunately, we had projects that were implemented earlier such as an e-form system to take almost 98% of our forms that were submitted to our student finance office — and those had all gone live last fall or early spring. Traditionally our office would have received a lot of paper as people were submitting applications for certain scholarships or waivers or exemptions. Those were all able to be submitted online with the ability for students or faculty staff members to do electronic uploads. So we were primed to receive things remotely. But as COVID-19 crept in, we started preparing some of our staff that weren’t used to working remotely. Getting them to test their desktop at home, test their access for VPN, and ensure that they could get into their remote desktop. And for someone who has multiple monitors at home, showing them some tips and tricks for remote desktop.
As COVID-19 came in, we had a phased approach to staff who would begin working remotely before we got into shelter-in-place restrictions and by and large I think our staff, and even our student workers, were very adaptive to it. Everybody understood that it’s hard to control what’s going on in the world. But we can control how we are adapting to it, and I think we’ve continued to see success. In fact, we have actually improved our turnaround time for certain things like refunding.
Mark: In terms of impact, I mean this all happened in the course of a week. Reflecting back on March 10 we halted university travel and we assisted in the return of all the university employees who were abroad. On March 15, the Pac-12 basketball championship was canceled and Sabrina Ionescu, our star point guard, and the rest of the ladies lost their opportunity to win a championship and then go to the national tournament. So that was heartbreaking to our campus.
On March 16, we instructed all of our employees to work remotely who could, and on March 19 we pivoted to remote instruction using Canvas and Zoom and other remote resources were provided to students. We also created a student crisis fund. We put in a hiring freeze and we had to lay off some auxiliary employees due to a lack of work in the student union, housing, and dining operations.
Many employees are now participating in a voluntary summer furlough program (myself included). It parallels a state workshare program where you reduce your effort by a day or two a week. And we’re preparing contingency plans for reduced state allocation and reduced fall tuition. So those are the big impacts in terms of being prepared. I think we’re really fortunate in Oregon because we’ve got André Le Duc as our chief resilience officer — he runs the safety and risk organization and our incident management team (IMT). It consists of over a couple hundred employees who are all trained in FEMA’s incident command system and they are trained in a way that they can coordinate easily with federal state and local authorities in response to any incident.
So we stood up our IMT early, back before the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on January 30. We partnered with the local hospital to establish COVID-19 testing and we’re manufacturing face shields. I’m proud of the fact that we gave all of our employees 80 hours of emergency sick leave. And our president, vice presidents, and coaches all took voluntary pay cuts. I feel like Oregon’s been in a good place because we have good resilience, infrastructure, and organization around it.
Digital transformation for future semesters
Efforts that were originally meant to support the 2020 semesters will clearly change the way that institutions educate and work for years to come. The world is changing – and higher education needs to change with it
Mark: Fortunately, we already had Office 365 deployed for all students and employees, which has been huge. We were getting familiar with using Microsoft Teams, but not in the way that we are familiar with it now. We did have to beef up our VPN. We really didn’t have a VPN capable of handling the number of employees that would be using it on a daily basis, so that was the first thing that our IT department did. We also licensed Zoom like everyone else and Dropbox recently completed a license to help our researchers share files.
In terms of payments, we already had most of our campus merchants accepting payments online using QuikPay, so QuikPay has been a savior. A lot of departments that were still accepting cash and checks came to us and asked if we could get on board with an e-payment and we were able to accommodate a lot of departments in a few days and get them up and going. We also switched some merchants from in-person card terminal payments to QuikPay.
Carolee: I mentioned that we had to transition to Canvas, but it’s a university culture where, you know, nobody makes faculty do anything. But I’m happy to say that the adoption rate was pretty spectacular with getting people up and running on Canvas. We had our academic technologies team available between 8 and 10 every day to help people transition, and by the middle of April 90% of the classes were on Canvas so courses could be offered remotely in that way. Overall, I think that was pretty amazing.
One of our scrambles was our one-stop student services area. We have been talking about some of the modern things we’ve done in the last five years. But our phone system is one that’s still on the list of “what-do-we-do-with-that?” I’m happy to say we didn’t have to purchase anything, but our network and telecom services, within less than a week, got our one-stop up and running so that all of the workers could answer the phone calls that they typically took in the office, at home.
Chris: Two-factor authentication was one of the big changes that we made for the Student Choice Refunds product during COVID-19 mostly because COVID-19 brought us the CARES act as well as housing pro-rated adjustments and dining adjustments. We had a lot of refund activity in mid-March and April (typically where we’re starting to see a wind down). So one of the big challenges that we had, was to ensure that our refunding process was secure and seamless for our students. There was increased activity and increased desire to know more about what’s going on with refunds in March and April, where under normal circumstances we would not typically see those requests — except for January, through the summer, and in August when the semesters begin.
Another thing that we did campus-wide, was our division along with digital strategy and innovation team started putting together some websites. These were one-stop shops for students, for faculty, and staff that brought together a library of resources — many of which already existed prior to COVID, but they were in different places, so we were able to centralize these resources. We tried to bring everything together, so that if you’re a student who’s suddenly thrust into hybrid instruction, you would have the resources to ensure that your system met the requirements, and that you had the tools needed to learn.
Conversely with faculty and staff, in most cases, they needed a refresher on how to get on VPN. We had to ensure that remote desktop functionality was set up and assist with switching from in-person instruction to Canvas. Many of our courses had Canvas shells that were available but they weren’t typically used for full-on instruction. They may have been used for one or two discussions in the semester or assignment submission and in a very short amount of time our faculty and staff members had to transform that format full-time.
Digital transformation was necessary but in many cases, as we look at what happened and the timing that it happened, it forced us to make decisions that otherwise would have taken many more months or in many cases they may not have ever happened. So we look at this as an opportunity to adapt even thought it was something that none of us wanted. No one is enjoying this pandemic, but it gave us an opportunity to really rethink how adaptive we are. What can we do to make our courses quickly accessible to students and what services can we offer, what can we do to make that easier?
To hear the live Q&A portion and full remarks from our guests, view the full webinar.